15 (and more) Best Films of 2009

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By Craig Phillips

Any year in which it is truly a challenge to whittle down one's list of favorite films rather than a stretch to fill in the list is a good one and I'd deem 2009 such a year. As always, my personal choices tend to be films that I find both wholly unique, emotionally resonant, and with a well structured script (or in the case of docs, a well structured story) -- those who know me know I have a particular bias for or against films based on how strong or weak are the scripts. These are the films that inspire, and stick with me long after the lights come back on.

  1. Goodbye Solo: Ramin Bahrani's beautifully moving, low-key film set in Winston-Salem NC about the developing friendship between an African emigre cab driver and a gruff older man with a mysterious past, and future, left me speechless in both its poignancy and grace. It's an exhilarating film full of humanity and subtle humor. Both newcomer Souleymane Sy Savane and oldcomer Red West (former friend of Elvis Presley and with a face that reflects his decades of work as a stuntman). The film's finale is a glorious epiphany, and quite moving.
  2. Gomorrah: Haven't felt this exhilarated about a crime film since Brazil's City of God. Matteo Garrone's film, based on the true crime book by Roberto Saviano, is a knockout. The violence and the matter of fact storytelling style may put some people off, but I found it most effective and compelling.
  3. lnglourious Basterds: Sure it's too long and the editing, probably because it was whittled down from a much longer running time, can be choppy in the Brad Pitt Basterds story, but this WWII tale is just as often a knockout, with one expertly crafted suspense sequence after another. French actress Melanie Laurent and Austrian find Christoph Waltz are the real stars here, both mesmerizing and crucial. Sure the Hitler plot is the ultimate revisionist revenge fantasy, but so what? This is a pure movie, and when it comes to pushing the audiences buttons no one's doing it better right now than QT.
  4. Fantastic Mr. Fox: Wes Anderson adapts Dahl in a way both kids and adults  can embrace; some critics thought it too 'twee' and adult but I found amusing throughout -- full of both sweetness and riotous set-pieces. And with so many levels of detail to the art design it demands multiple viewings. You don't agree? Are you cussing with me? The cuss you are!
  5. Tulpan: Certainly the best film set in Kazakhstan. But seriously folks, this Cannes-winning comic love story set in the desolate Hunger Steppe is almost indescribably wonderful. It's charming as hell and the almost lunar-landscape gives the film a lovely otherworldly feel. Sergei Dvortsevoy has a documentary background which gives it a realistic feel, too, in the spirit of The Fast Runner.
  6. 35 Shots of Rum: Claire Denis' gorgeous but unpretentiously subtle father-daughter story, like Bahrani's film reaches into the depths of human feeling without straining or pretentiousness. It'd also be a great film to show to film students when trying to teach how you can get across so much with almost no dialogue. Denis' shot composition is always glorious in her films but here the look is even more acutely beautiful, with aid from DP Agnes Godard. Exquisite.
  7. A Serious Man: I wrote more about this one here, but count me as a Jewish person who was fascinated by its depiction of Judaic curiosity and anxiety, and not one who considered some of its archetypal characters anti-Semitic {cough Hoberman cough}. It's often bleakly funny, and just as often bleakly nihilistic (the Coens are no strangers to that of course but this work may take the cake), but between the folkloric beginning and the shocking ending it's hard not to view the film with a bit of wry smile, too, as a very Jewish, really great cosmic joke.
  8. Coraline: Rather remarkable in look and feel, Henry Selick finally officially separated himself from under Tim Burton's shadow with this stop motion treat based on Neil Gaiman's book. Spooky, even unsettling at times, children's tale is one of the best stop motion films ever made -- next to Fantastic Mr. Fox. (I much prefer it to his popular Nightmare Before Christmas.) Fantastical, magical, it's an achievement.
  9. The Cove: Enthralling and enervating, both, this doc on the hunt to catch dolphin slaughterers in Japan in the act plays out like a fictional thriller but is, alas, real. Manipulative at times, yes, but pretty damned persuasive. 
  10. The Hurt Locker: Kathryn Bigelow's one of our best action directors and her depiction of the death-can-happen-any-second feel of a bomb squad in Iraq will quicken your pulse with the immersive camerawork and sound design. I think the film only wobbles a bit when it leaves that terrain, tries to show SSgt James' (a superb Jeremy Renner) home life. Just as war is where he belongs, so too with this film. Regardless, it's an enthralling work.
  11. Sin Nombre: Cary Fukunaga's sharply made, and shot (he won the directing and cinematography award at Sundance), indie with elements of El Norte and Pixote, seems to be getting short shrift in year end lists. Maybe because the subject matter, immigrants struggling in a world of poverty, turns some off. But it's a riveting film.
  12. Revanche On second viewing I moved this exceptional Austrian thriller up higher in my rankings; I liked it a lot the first time but didn't fully appreciate how adeptly and seamlessly director Gotz Spielmann tells this noirish story with economy but humanity. The characters are indelibly real, and the story becomes all the more tragic because of it. A marvelous work.
  13. Where the Wild Things Are: As with Mr Fox some worried this was more for adults than children, but these are people who don't give kids enough credit for expansive imaginations. Wild Things is one of the best depictions of childhood's melancholy, angst and explosive creativity I've ever seen. I much prefer Dave Eggers' script (with director Spike Jonze) here than his more pointed but contrived romantic drama Away We Go.
  14. Anvil!: Found this doc about a heavy metal duo's long struggle to become famous (or at least not poor) far more moving than just about any concocted fictional drama this year.
  15. Up: Probably Pixar's most affecting film -- the first act alone is hard to top for emotional resonance -- and full of trademark humor and terrific character design. In short, an animated masterpiece. And as animated animal characters go, both Dug and Kevin are hard to beat.

HONORABLE MENTION

If you aren't convinced 2009 was a great year for film, I give my extended list of honorable mentions as exhibit A, your honor.

  • The Maid: Terrific performance in titular role by Catalina Saavedra in this Chilean film that is both sad and funny, and a mite hard to predict.
  • Silent Light: Carlos Reygadas' gorgeous film about a Mennonite family in Mexico deserves special consideration here as it basically didn't get a release until this year.
  • Sugar: I basically completely forgot to put this on the list first time around, the punishment of being an early year release, I suppose. But I thought this indie one of the better baseball films in some time, but it's far more than that, and not just a fish out of water story, it's a loving portrait of the immigrant experience. My review >>
  • Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans: Thank the film Gods for Werner Herzog; he not only took this policier  (which isn't a sequel to the original BL, just borrowing the name and inspiration) and made it his own, a combo of Southern comfort and Teutonic black humor, but he finally gave Nicolas Cage something fun to do again. Less big budget gobbledygook-laden garbage, Nick, more iguanas, gators and coke-craziness, please. Has to be one of the craziest films of the year.
  • Two Lovers
  • Sita Sings the Blues: For a Flash-animated film made solely by one woman to be regarded for a year end best of list is remarkable on several levels. A mix of strikingly lovely, colorful flash-y art, Terry Gilliam style cutout animation and Nina Paley's own indubitable cartoonyness to tell the story based on the Hindu epic Ramayana as well as Paley's own dissolving marriage with great humor and reverence. I admit there's something satisfying and gleeful about putting a film like this on the list over something like Avatar. 
  • In the Loop: Often screamingly funny political satire of the kind they rarely make anymore, this spin-off of the UK series "The Thick of It". It's about a series of misstatements, egos and poor decisions that lead to the escalation of war, and acted to the hilt by a staggeringly foul-mouthed, unforgettable Peter Capaldi, along with a very capable British and American cast. Loses steam slightly when it moves to the US but is otherwise aces.
  • The Baader Meinhof Complex
  • Drag Me to Hell: [My review is here >>]
  • Food Inc
  • Il Divo
  • Jerichow (would make a fascinating double-header with Revanche)
  • Up in the Air: I'm somewhere in between the critics raving about Jason Reitman's film and the sort of predictable unfair backlash against it, but I found the film actually a fairly subtle and true depiction of alienation and loneliness. Vera Farmiga and Anna Kendrick are aces. There's a rote-ness to it that bugs at times but it's still a worthy film.
  • Damned United: Took a few liberties with the book, which itself took some liberties with the real story, but it works; one of the few very good soccer films in recent years and, thanks to Michael Sheen and Tim Spall, a rather touching story of male friendship as well. Review here >>
  • Julia: Tilda Swinton is unforgettable in this underseen psychological drama
  • Bright Star 
  • Moon: Duncan Jones gets a hell of a lot out of a relatively low budget in this throwback (i.e., thinking man's) sci-fi, with shades of Solaris and a terrific Sam Rockwell carrying it in multiple ways. Not perfectly satisfying but highly provocative.
  • Ponyo : Even slightly "lesser" Miyazaki is still pretty damned lovely. This sweet fable is as gorgeous as any of his films; there's just a bit less to it...
  • Somers Town
  • House of the Devil : Review >>
  • Adventureland: Review >>
  • The Informant!: One of the best films about an unreliable narrator, it probably disappointed those expecting either a wacky comedy, as it was marketed, or a suspenseful whistleblower film a la The Insider, which clearly Soderbergh and screenwriter Scott Z Burns were not interested in repeating. One of Matt Damon's most underrated performances, too.
  • Medicine for Melancholy: Lovely debut feature from Barry Jenkins, a low key romantic comedy and an elegy for a changing San Francisco [review here >>]
  • Big Fan: I've always been a big fan of Patton Oswalt's, but he surprised even me in his acutely pained, natural performance, playing a sad sack whose life revolves around his favorite sports team. I liked Robert Siegel's script here even more than his acclaimed The Wrestler. Darkly funny, sporting Taxi Driver.
  • District 9: South African sci-fi-action parable is derivative in several ways, no doubt, but it sure feels fresh and exciting as presented. Immediate in style, It looks terrific, too.
  • You, the Living

Haven't seen yet, or The Don't Ask Me Why These Aren't On the List List

  • Still Walking
  • Single Man
  • Hunger
  • The White Ribbon
  • Tetro (sorry, Francis; sorry Aaron)
  • A Town Called Panic
  • Beaches of Agnes
  • Seriphine
  • Red Cliff
  • Imaginarium of Dr. Parnassus (opens January here)

Sleepers and Semi-Guilty Pleasures:

CarriersBandslam; The International (Tom Twyker's underrated if implausible global political thriller); Zombieland; Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs (got lost in the shuffle of other bigger animated films but quite amusing and charming).

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